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Through the Valley: 8 Lessons from Job about Suffering & Comfort

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We will not leave this earthly life unscathed. The longer we live, the more we will see and experience suffering. Since we will experience grief and will need comfort, we need to think clearly and biblically ahead of time about how to walk through the valleys and hardships that will inevitably come. The biblical authors contribute to this aspect of our discipleship through their teachings and stories which prepare us for suffering.

Many places in both the Old and New Testaments can strengthen our understanding about how to be wise in a world where sad things happen to righteous people. The book of Job, in particular, serves as a strong source of this wisdom because it is filled with suffering. The opening chapters narrate the experience of it, and the subsequent lengthy speeches reflect deeply on it.

I want to highlight eight lessons about grief and comfort from the book of Job.

1. Suffering takes place in the context of spiritual warfare

Before the book introduces Job’s hardships, we hear from the Lord in heaven. Before we listen to Job’s wife and Job’s friends, we hear from the sinister being known as Satan.

The opening of the book introduces us to spiritual realities which were—and are—always present: the sovereign God who reigns over all things, as well as Satan whom we know to be the enemy and accuser of God’s people. We must recognize these realities if we are to understand Job’s journey and difficulties properly: as an unfolding of spiritual warfare.

Suffering in this world does not occur in a neutral spiritual atmosphere. According to the apostle Paul, the Lord works all things for our ultimate good (Rom 8:28), and the phrase “all things” includes the sorrows we face. In Genesis, Joseph recognizes that, though his brothers had meant evil against him, God had meant his experiences for good (Gen 50:20).

Suffering in this world does not occur in a neutral spiritual atmosphere.

But while the Lord works for the good of his people, Satan’s designs are against us and for our destruction. How could it be otherwise? Satan hates the people of God, and he hates the God of those people. In the book of Job, we can see that unseen powers are at work in everything Job goes through.

Suffering is, among other things, a spiritual battle. Paul taught that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12).1 Since our warfare is ultimately spiritual, we will not be surprised when our suffering feels like a fight for faith. The accuser may whisper that God doesn’t love us. Others around us may say we’ve deserved whatever has happened. We may fear that nothing exists beyond the grief.

If we remember that suffering occurs in a context of spiritual warfare, we will be better equipped to expose the lies of the Evil One and to remember the truths about who God is and why he can be trusted through trials.

2. Don’t underestimate the value of being present with others

After Job’s children perished and his health suffered, his three friends hear of all that happened and come to see him (Job 2:11). Their plan is “to come to show him sympathy and comfort him” (2:11). They weep when they see him, tearing their robes and sprinkling dust on their heads (2:12). Job’s grief is great, and as they imagine his agony, they are overwhelmed with him and for him.

The narrator reports the presence and silence of these friends: “And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (Job 2:13).

Given the greatness of Job’s suffering, the response of his friends may seem underwhelming. They are present for a week and don’t speak? They just sit with him and observe his deeply grievous state?

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If we think the response of Job’s friends here is inadequate, we underestimate the value of being present with others in their sorrow. God can comfort the afflicted person directly. But he is also pleased to comfort the afflicted through the presence of others. Paul said that God “comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor 1:4).

People’s presence can be a comfort to those who suffer. Being present shows forethought, concern, and care. The sheer length of time—“seven days and seven nights” (Job 2:13)—shows sacrifice and commitment from Job’s friends. The friends coordinate their visit and intend to remain with Job as he struggles through and processes his suffering.

When you are present with someone who is suffering, the Lord may use your presence to lift their spirits and strengthen their resolve. Our presence communicates compassion and love. What a privilege to be a vessel of encouragement and comfort to someone facing sorrow and sadness.

3. Don’t expect your words to solve a person’s suffering

When we are with those facing affliction, we may experience the normal and understandable desire to try to fix their suffering with our words. We want to say something to take away the pain. But when someone has experienced great sorrow, the effect of our words can be quite limited.

We need to have a reasonable sense of what we can offer by way of speech. We can assure the person of our love. We can help with small things like meals, lawn care, laundry, or childcare—things that no longer seem small when affliction has descended on someone’s life. Grievous suffering has a way of rendering a person unable to do or fulfill some basic needs and responsibilities. One way, then, that we can help a person who is suffering is by helping to alleviate additional burdens or responsibilities.

Sometimes the things people say to sufferers actually make things worse. I’ve seen this kind of damage in pastoral ministry. A well-meaning friend will say something thoughtless or callous. At that point, not only is the suffering not remedied, the suffering can actually increase! We have the capacity to add to people’s pain because of poorly-timed or inappropriate words.

So when we are with afflicted people, we should weigh our words carefully. We might deem it best to say little to nothing at all. We don’t like seeing people in pain, so our instinct may be to try to solve it with a lot of talking. However, I also suspect that we may find it uncomfortable being with one who is suffering. So our words may be our own way of dealing with our discomfort. We need to be attuned to this possibility, because the last thing we need to do when someone else is suffering is make the situation about our own comfort.

4. Bad theology produces bad counselors

When Job’s friends eventually do start talking, the situation takes a turn for the worse. Their words demonstrate poor reasoning and an unsound theology of suffering. When someone with bad theology starts trying to comfort a person in affliction, that bad theology will show up in bad counsel.

When someone with bad theology starts trying to comfort a person in affliction, that bad theology will show up in bad counsel.

Job’s friends believe that those who suffer must have done something to deserve it. Job’s children have perished, and Job himself has faced emotional and physical travail. All of this suffering, therefore, must have be a reaping of previous sinful choices. These friends operate with a strict retributive theology—that human suffering is always the product of divine retribution for sin.

After a series of speeches in which Job endures this bad theology from these bad counselors, Job replies, “I have heard many such things; miserable comforters are you all” (Job 16:2). They have zeal without knowledge (Prov 19:12). They have strong opinions without wisdom. They have a contorted theology of suffering because they have no category for a “righteous sufferer.”

One of the reasons we need to grow in sound doctrine is so that we can be a vessel of sound encouragement to others when they need it. Bad theology not only negatively affects the person who has it, but it also affects the person who hears it from them. In Job’s case, he endures his overconfident friends who incorrectly pronounce his guilt and demand his repentance from whatever wickedness they assume precipitated his terrible suffering. Because of their bad theology, Job’s friends prove to be miserable comforters indeed.

5. Don’t speculate about causes of a person’s suffering

Humans perennially endeavor to understand why bad things happen. We instinctively want to know God’s ways in this world (Eccl 3:11). Though people sometimes speculate as to why something happened in someone’s life, they lack the knowledge of God to be able to know for certain. Our human understanding of events is limited because we are not omniscient. To state the obvious, we are not God.

Given the limits of our understanding, we should forgo speculation about causes for someone’s affliction. Imagine telling someone who has experienced great suffering, “I know why this is happening to you. It is because …” Such speculation presumes to know what only God knows.

Job’s friends don’t think they are speculating about the reason for his hardships. Though they don’t yet know the specific wickedness Job has committed, they assume he has to have done something. They speak with unwarranted certainty about Job’s affliction. In so doing, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar combine ignorance with arrogance.

We should not look at tragedy in a person’s life and think we can discern causation. That kind of confidence is dangerous territory. But is it not true that fools reap destruction and that sinners can face all manner of consequences for their transgressions? Yes, the biblical authors warn us that rebellion against God leads to disaster. The error of Job’s friends, however, is that they believe they can reason backward from effect to cause. They think that if disaster has occurred in someone’s life, the cause must necessarily be spiritual rebellion.

They are wrong. We should learn the lesson Job’s friends haven’t learned. Let’s avoid pronouncing causes for the affliction of others. We might be right or we might be wrong, but one thing for sure is that we are not God.

6. Afflicted people will probably think and say untrue things

Great sorrow affects our clarity on every level. Walking through suffering can feel like walking through a fog. Which means one’s journey through suffering will not be marked by perfect thoughts and words. As imperfect disciples of the Lord Jesus, we are susceptible to thinking and saying things that are not true.

In Job 3, the righteous sufferer declares that he wishes he’d never been born (Job 3:3–10). He asks why he hadn’t died at birth (3:11). He imagines being a stillborn child who never would have faced the sorrows of earthly life under the sun (3:16). These words are strong, and they are the real sentiments of a believer in Yahweh.

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We need to resist the impulse to correct every untrue thing someone says. A better time may come for us to address the spiritual challenges or doubts that the afflicted person faces, and they may even ask us directly about certain theological or practical matters that relate to their suffering. We should always speak truthfully and biblically, but we also need to let sufferers process what they’ve experienced. And part of their process will probably involve deep questions and concerns.

A righteous person, like Job, might curse their day of birth. They might ask, “How could God really love me and let me go through this trial?” They might fear that they have fallen into God’s condemnation. They might wish they could die. They might enter a season of depression.

As we listen to someone speak in the midst of their suffering, we shouldn’t be surprised if they think or say untrue things. Great affliction can rock someone’s world at the deepest level. We should listen carefully and pray for wisdom about whether to respond and what to say (if anything). We should not assume that untrue statements are an indictment against their spiritual state. The valley of despair can be dark, and it can be long. People might say something in the dark that they’d never have said in the light.

7. The best way to prepare for suffering is to walk wisely with God

Before the narrator tells us about Job’s particular trials, he tells us about Job’s character and reputation. Job was “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). He was a man who trusted the Lord, and he was mindful of the lives of his children as well. He sacrificed burnt offerings every day according to the number of his children (1:5).

Since we know that Job is a righteous man, we can discern the error of Job’s friends who claim he is being judged for wickedness. Job is not reaping what he has sown. He is a man who walks wisely with God. And arguably, his life of obedience prepared him for the suffering he faces.

How should we prepare for hardship? We should fear the Lord and turn from evil. We should devote ourselves to the word of God and the worship of God. We should meditate on God’s promises, especially the truth that he will work all things for the good of his people (Rom 8:28).

Throughout the valley of Job’s despair, he never turns from the Lord. Is his suffering and struggle great? Yes. But Job remains confident in God’s knowledge of his own uprightness. He knows that God will vindicate him despite the accusations of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. The suffering of Job is the suffering of a righteous man. He would never have chosen such hardship, but he endures it as a man who is already fearing and seeking the Lord.

We do not know what the future holds, so we do not know the hardships or valleys in store. Let us be those who desire to live for the glory of God, no matter what happens. If we walk wisely with God now, we will be better prepared to face the unexpected trials that even the upright experience.

8. Even in the valley God is worthy of worship

After Job’s children perish, he speaks what may be the most famous words of the whole book: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).

Job’s exclamation is worshipful. He knows that the name of the Lord should be blessed and praised no matter what God’s people go through. The Lord is sovereign (he “gave” and “has taken away”), yet he is worthy. Job’s circumstances are not the conditions for worship. God himself is the sufficient reason for unending praise. The greatness of God is not diminished by great suffering. The goodness of God is not negated by bad circumstances. The righteousness of God is not undermined by unrighteous accusations.

Job’s circumstances are not the conditions for worship. God himself is the sufficient reason for unending praise.

Job’s example shows that the valley can be a place of worship. We know the rightness of Job’s words (1:21) because the narrator comments, “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong” (1:22). When Job blesses the name of the Lord, he is right to do so. When Job highlights the sovereignty of God over his own suffering, he isn’t wrong in what he says. The dark valley of despair is still a place for Job to praise the Lord.

Conclusion

The story and steadfastness of Job is an enduring lesson for God’s people. Consider the letter of James, full of wisdom for Christian readers. In his final chapter, James draws attention to the story of Job: “Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (Jas 5:11).

Suffering is inevitable. Not only will we experience suffering at some point or another, but so will those around us. The story of Job can help us remain steadfast in that suffering, and it can help us understand how best to come alongside others who are suffering. While our words cannot erase the pain in this world, we can walk with the Lord who is sovereign over his people and works all things—even suffering—for their good. Job’s story leaves us longing for the day when God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:4).

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  1. All biblical quotes are taken from the ESV.
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Written by
Mitch Chase

Mitch Chase is the preaching pastor at Kosmosdale Baptist Church in Louisville, and he is an associate professor of biblical studies at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of several books, including Short of Glory: A Biblical and Theological Exploration of the Fall, and 40 Questions About Typology and Allegory. He writes regularly at his Substack called "Biblical Theology."

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Written by Mitch Chase